By Willow Aliento
17 June 2014 — In the case of Closed Loop, business growth is not only happening in financial terms, it is also happening through an integrated approach to sustainable waste management that embraces technology, relationship brokering, auditing, product development and even the cultivation of produce.
Company spokesperson Joel Morris told The Fifth Estate that interest in the firm’s core technology – rapid organic composting units – has gone “through the roof” in the last 18 months, not only in Australia, but also in the UK, Denmark and Brazil.
The Korean designed and manufactured units have been modified for Australian applications. In a three-year research and development process, Closed Loop developed the specifications for the local version, including ensuring units meet Australian electrical standards and waste handling regulations. Adjustments also had to be made to cater for the Australia climate.
The composters include both domestic scale and commercial sized units with capacities ranging from 20 kilograms of food waste per day to 1200kg a day units suitable for stadiums, large hotels or hospitals.
Since launching into the market, at least 50 commercial units have been installed across hospitality, mining, airports, education, healthcare and local government sectors, including Qantas’ QCatering operation at Mascot Airport, Barwon Health at Geelong, Waverley Council in Sydney and Noma Restaurant in Copenhagen.
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Victorian hardware chain Masters is supplying the product. Morris said positioning the product was a challenge for the chain, however.
“It is an interesting product, as it crosses categories,” he says. “Are they gardening, or are they a white good?
“From the commercial customer point of view it is easier to understand, as it is just another piece of machinery.
“We have quite a big pipeline of orders, and expect the business will grow significantly this year as we are aiming for 100 commercial units installed.”
The firm also plans to develop even larger units in response to expressions of interest from potential users such as Melbourne Wholesale Market. Morris said the market is considering installing a unit at the new Epping location.
“For the amount of waste at the markets, we would be looking at a multi-tonne per day unit,” Morris says.
Strong growth from a sustainability startup
Closed Loop commenced trading in 2001, and grew out of managing director and principal Rob Pascoe’s work with VISY Recycling. The company currently has 28 Australian staff, with offices in Sydney and Melbourne, and agents in Queensland.
In the 2012-13 financial year turnover was over $25 million, and Morris says there are hopes it will be higher this year due to the increased uptake of all of the firms’ products and services.
Crunching the carbon numbers
The company’s key goal is to assist business to reduce their waste to landfill and achieve other key sustainability metrics. A calculator has been developed that assesses the carbon footprint of a unit’s energy use and the transport used to shift the compost it produces to an end user or to landfill.
Morris says the calculator is adjusted for each state’s particular energy generation mix of coal, gas and renewables.
To reduce the carbon footprint, Closed Loop where possible works with users to develop relationships with the farmers who deliver produce. By encouraging those farmers to pick up and use the compost by back hauling it after a produce delivery, Morris says the volume of food waste is reduced by up to 90 per cent compared with the standard practice of sending 100 per cent of food waste to landfill.
The use of the compost by suppliers to the business that makes the waste is the ideal solution, as it has both the immediate footprint benefit of redeploying the embodied carbon and nutrients using transport that would otherwise be returning to its base near empty, and it also creates a displacement footprint through the substitution of the compost for other farming additives such as mulch, chemical fertilisers or other commercial composts.
By involving the Closed Loop technology and the compost it produces, the farmer effectively has a share of those nutrients returned, which can then be used to continue the cycle of growing, harvesting and supplying ingredients. This has been the case with one of the early Melbourne users, Silo by Joost.
“They are a business after our own hearts, as they are a total zero waste cafe. All the produce comes in re-useable containers – all the wine comes in barrels, and all the milk in steel vessels. Food is the only real waste, and now the growers are picking it up as compost,” Morris says.
“We’re finding a point in the system’s favour with restaurants is they are developing a better relationship with suppliers, a more symbiotic relationship. It also gets back to the provenance of food, people want to know more about where their food comes from, and are becoming more conscious of the concept of food miles.”
The Barwon Health unit collects and processes the food preparation and uneaten meals waste from a central catering hub, turning up to 600kg of organic waste a day from up to six locations into compost that is used by local farms including Magic Meadows and Encompass.
The mining sector has also proved a good customer, as the impact on local waste infrastructure of bringing 4000 workers to a town of 1000 people can quickly reduce the lifespan of the town’s landfill.
“The composting units reduce some of that pressure, and also create a great compost for use in mine remediation works,” Morris says.
Morris says that Closed Loop hopes to see more local government areas adopt the technology, particularly for busy food precincts. The compost could then be deployed by the LGAs on council parks and gardens, reducing the need for costly inputs of fertiliser and mulch, as compost adds to the soil structure and improves water holding capacity in a similar manner to mulch.
It is also, he said, an advantage for retail centres with a large number of tenants, as it reduces the number of waste pickups required daily, and also cuts out the need to set aside refrigerated areas for food waste awaiting pickup.
“I’ve been to some retail centres and seen huge cool rooms, and they are just for bins,” Morris says.
Going back to the source
The company is currently working with University of Melbourne PhD students on a project using compost produced by a unit in the student union. The research will examine broadacre applications and quantify the aspects of water use, carbon emission and sequestration, growth rates and methane emissions of different applications.
A model sustainable farm, “The Farmers Place”, is also being developed on Anglesea Road in Torquay. The 40-acre property will provide space for trial and production cultivation, and host a farmers market, and a cafe and restaurant housed in remodelled shipping containers.
“The whole idea is that everything at the farm is recycled,” Morris says.
“One of the things we are finding is that once a thing has been used it is usually sent to the tip, for example, the windows company we sourced our windows from was going to send them to landfill, so we got them for free. There’s a lot of instances like that.”
Another practical project is City Harvest, which aims to provide employment and training opportunities for young people at risk though urban vegetable gardens. The City Harvest board includes Closed Loop, Les Twentyman’s Twentieth Man Fund and the Banksia Foundation, and the first trial project at Melbourne Ports Aquatic Centre is commencing soon.
Redeploying resources and materials stewardship
Closed Loop also provides waste auditing and general recycling services for plastics, glass, aluminium paper and cardboard. The company has developed a “turnstile” machine that is being used by Heathrow airport in London, and is also mobile enough to be deployed for major events and festivals. The machine sorts the waste without the need for human handling, so the different types of materials can easily be sold on to remanufacturers.
“We don’t see waste as ‘waste’; we see it as a resource,” Morris says.
“It doesn’t make sense to extract oil which is millions of years old at a huge cost, which is then turned into plastic and used in about 10-15 minutes and then buried. Where’s the business case in that?
“We’d rather capture that resource and make something else. There is a ready market for all types of plastics.”
Closed Loop conducted a year-long waste audit of Heathrow Airport, and developed a bespoke version of the turnstile machine for sorting both landside and cabin waste.
“They are now recycling over 50 per cent of their waste, and saving a quarter of a million pounds per year in waste disposal fees,” Morris says.
The company is itself a manufacturer of recycled packaging, which is used by clients including KFC and Qantas. The range includes both paper-based and plastic-based, with the London Closed Loop operation producing the first food-grade recycled plastic containers in the UK.
Getting to zero waste
Ultimately, the company aims to upcycle, redeploy and repurpose resources, and assist companies to achieve zero waste.
“There are a lot of things out there which have energy in them, which have been made and invested in, which can be redeployed,” Morris says.
“The past’s linear take on waste is not fit for the current world. We have all the capital in the form of buildings and other elements, now we need to steward them and make a return on the investment in them.
“There’s a value for all this material. Treating it as waste essentially means paying for it twice – paying up front to use it, and then paying to dispose of it, which gives no value. Waste is really a hidden tax on resources that goes onto whatever you are making.
“[A softdrink manufacturer] for example, will make the manufacturing process as efficient as possible, and take care not to waste a drop during manufacture. Yet when they sell the product, people drink it and throw the bottle in the bin. Forward thinking companies will want to get that material back.”